“Our plan was to be cautious, but somebody must have stuffed cotton wool in George’s ears,” Busby said.
George Best got into the Manchester United dressing room at the age of seventeen – and into the Northern Ireland side simultaneously. Gradually, this teenager from Belfast started to hit the headlines, making a name for himself.
Bob Bishop turned-up at George’s doorstep – and explained to Dickie Best and Anne Best about, Manchester United’s desire to acquire George Best. His intuitions and actions were straightforward. George was playing football down 16 Burrey Way with his friends – his parents called him home, explained to him the opportunity – agreeing, he ran back down the street, and with unmitigated astonishment he explained to his friends about it.
Though, initially, circumstances were unpleasant for both the parties. George raced back to his home at 16 Burrey Way in Cregagh Estate, Belfast after a mere twenty-four hours at Old Trafford; the magnitude of the task of being away from his native Ireland was too big to pay, according to “small and light” George Best. Though, Best returned to the club, as a result of a phone-call made from Manchester to Belfast by Sir Matt Busby. On the phone-call to Dickie Best, Sir Matt made “enough sense” for him to return to Manchester, and evaluate his ambitions and aspirations. Mary Fullaway was a typical footballer’s landlady – George’s ‘second mother’ helped him settle in an unfamiliar habitation. It was the belief Bob Bishop and most importantly Sir Matt Busby had in this “genius,” ultimately carving him into for what he is remembered, now.
Aged seventeen, on 14th September 1963 against West Bromwich Albion, George Best made his Manchester United debut. Before he would kick the ball, his excitement uplifted as he walked-up to the opening of the tunnel at Old Trafford, where until he reached the halfway, he didn’t see the crowd – but, heard the noise generated by them like one is turning-up the volume of the radio; a feeling he esteemed throughout this life.
Sir Matt Busby had always shared a fatherly relationship with George Best. Their substantial alliance was decisive in Georgie’s progression. Best valued Sir Matt’s principles and regards his honest approach to a problem or a person as his finest characteristic. He would come down like the proverbial ton of bricks on anyone, who let him or his beloved Manchester United down. George Best was inspired by the aura of a scintillating and brutally honest human being, who epitomized a football club into a world-wide institution. He was a man who rose from humble surrounds to walk with kings, and not overlook the common touch. George Best describes: “if ever a man deserved the accolade of the knighthood and the approbation he received it was he.”
After 1968, he thought that Manchester United would be the next Real Madrid. He thought they would continue to win pots, building a team around him. He thought he would carry on winning medals – as that’s what Best had done every season since he’d made his debut. Having played a considerable role in helping United to two league titles and a European Cup by the age of 22, also claiming the Ballon d’Or and becoming the youngest-ever Footballer of the Year winner in the process. He wanted to be number one. Being number two was absolutely mournful for him and being three or four – as Manchester United then were – was absolute pain. He had this absolute obsession – this need to be perfect and to go and win every game. The side that won the European Cup in 1968, was ageing, the club didn’t have plans for the future, Sir Matt Busby hesitated to invest in new players. Ultimately, failing to replace a world-class squad and stepping into the state of mediocrity, Manchester United was relegated as a result.
In July, 1971, when Sir Matt Busby handed his Manchester United players to successor, Frank O’Farrell, there was something almost symbolic, certainly typically Sir Matt, in the gesture. At The Cliff, Sir Matt, accompanied by his life-long right-hand man, Jimmy Murphy, made the necessary introductions, instructing the necessary, he walked away; immediately on a holiday. Frank O’Farrell was told to immediately undertake a mammoth task of completely rebuilding the club, by characters outside Old Trafford, of course. During his time at Old Trafford, Frank O’Farrell enjoyed a healthy relationship with Best. But, in the 1972-1973 season, the sacking of Frank O’Farrell created unstable and unacceptable circumstances for the club and George Best. Simultaneously, outside the field, actions undertaken by George Best only added misery to his own misfortunes – and his relationship with new manger in-charge, Tommy Docherty – was troublesome. The club was undergoing a massive decline, where there was no concrete communication between the “old guard clique” and the lesser talented group of players. He claimed to be carrying a team in which a series of new signings flopped, leading to the club’s eventual relegation. Circumstances were an evidence of Georgie’s decline as a player, not a result of his inability to perform; but the loss of guidance which was provided by Sir Matt Busby, initially and throughout his peak years at United. The club went into decline for the simple that it did not have enough good players, who could replace the likes of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. The club’s hesitance to sign new players meant, United missed out opportunities to sign excellent players like Alan Ball and Mike England. In an interview, George said, “I did all I could, but I did not have the players around me.”
Back then, the notion of media training was inconceivable and players weren’t groomed for super-stardom as they are now. Consequently, the once-shy teenager from Belfast was finding his sudden celebrity status increasingly difficult to deal with. He didn’t have the experience to deal with the problems he faced off the football field. In 1965 and 1966, when his fame really began to rise, no one at Manchester United really knew what was going on. Even at 19, it was the equivalent now of the kind of experiences someone gets at 14 in terms of life.
In the late 70s and early 80s, when George Best’s capabilities as a player deteriorated, his aura of a superstar remained unblemished – attracting audiences and filling stadium. The United States was George’s last theater, where he performed his individually supreme and entertaining style of football. The sport didn’t receive it all, what George Best had to offer – and neither did he. His talent was unparallel. When George Best scored that famous goal for San Jose Earthquakes when he beat 29 men backwards, his first thought afterwards was: ‘What if I had done that for Manchester United?’
In many ways, Best’s career trajectory mirrored that of legendary coach Brian Clough, whose managerial style brought endless success to both Derby County and Nottingham Forest at first, yet he retired in similarly humiliating circumstances, having overseen the latter’s relegation from the Premier League. Alcoholism, unsteady relationship with Angie Best and bankruptcy caused further harm to Best’s personality and personal life. During his playing days, whatever George Best did off the football field, his ultimate fantasy was never challenged i.e. to play football – and once, he retired from the game, alcoholism strengthened its grip. In Immortal, Duncan Hamilton explains, George Best’s agent kept telling him not to give his money to people, because tax was very high then, and George had a propensity to swap his sports cars every couple of months – and it got to a point where he was paying so much tax, he ended up asking to be paid in cash. It wasn’t uncommon to find, there were five and 10 pound notes stuffed down the side of his furniture or hidden away in the sock drawer. Once, someone went to get a clean pair of socks and found £30,000! George Best wasn’t an alcoholic, initially. Earlier, footballers didn’t enjoy a healthy share of protection and privacy – fans could connect with growing superstars alike Georgie without disturbances – and asking him for a drink at a local bar or nightclub wasn’t an unconditional site, which commenced his temptation for alcoholism.
Play entertaining football, because that is what the people, who had worked all week to come to the stadium on a Saturday afternoon, had paid to see. The most important thing was to entertain. Pele earned a great deal of money from the game itself – and outside football, there were various activities undertaken by him, which largely contributed to his earnings. In those days, there was a coffee named after him. Through-and-through, football has been a branch of show business – and George Best was the first football player, who intertwined football with show business. Throughout the world, the popularity of George Best and Pele was unmatchable.
Throughout his lifetime, he enjoyed a great relationship with Manchester City forward, Mike Summerbee. Mike and George were unmarried good-looking young men, who were unlike their Manchester City and Manchester United teammates, who were married. Georgie was turning into a superstar and was richly famous between girls. At the same time, his reputability was blooming in Northern Ireland, where he was idolized. Britain’s most eligible bachelor was turning into Britain’s most elegant footballer.
Even, though, George Best wasn’t a physical giant, his immaculate control and dribbling ability meant he could take on thundering great defenders and invariably made them look a bunch of mugs. He added an essential entertainment factor to his playing style. He had a certain degree of swagger in him, when he played. Girls screamed at him, boys tried to dress like him. 1960s was period of time, where opportunities bloomed – and George Best blossomed to his ultimate ‘best’. His presence of the football field attracted girls and ladies to football stadiums. He alone would put 15,000 on a gate, and there were not many pop stars in that generation, who could achieve such figures. He did tasks differently; for him it was “pure theater”. Everything about George Best had an aura of a superstar. He could have surely become a film-star, or a television personality. Where football had been short on the pin-up personalities, he came along and completely revolutionized the sport. It has always been harder for defenders to get a certain glossy show business impression, but Bobby Moore managed it. He pulled the crowds, dominated matches and he was pinned up in many a fair damsel’s bedroom. Moore was more responsible than his counterpart George Best, whom Maradona regards “crazier” than himself. His entertainment value fueled with his phenomenon success on the field. He would feature more in entertainment magazines than in sports magazines. You would pick up all the football magazines – Jimmy Hill’s Football Weekly or Goal. They’d just be full of George. You’d pick up any of the tabloid papers and usually find him on the front as well as the back-page. He was the person that anyone of my age latched onto. The number of cuttings on George would fill Old Trafford. He incorporated sex appeal with football, becoming every advertiser’s dream model. He could have sold snow to an Eskimo!
He was one of the most prominent figures of the 1960s – embedded into it and seminally significant in shaping its look and culture and mood. Here was a footballer treated like a pop icon and a pin-up, a fashion model and sex symbol, always seductively charismatic. He presented the allure of youth, the radicalism of new styles and breezy, libertine attitudes – a working-class bachelor in a working-class sport, worshipped especially by anyone who made a living from the grease of everyday labor. It was the perfect conjunction of a personality to a period. He lived out the fantasies of others. In playgrounds and on parks every schoolboy of the 60s and early 70s visualized himself as him. In offices and on factory floors every man envied him because every woman adored him. Some women went to football matches only because he played in them. You would hear them scream whenever he got the ball. Photographers complained he was too nippy for them. He slid in and then out of focus too quickly. Striving to take the definitive image of him in action always proved frustrating. The most successful pictures were posed and studio-lit. He was Hollywood-gorgeous and superbly groomed – a coiffure fringe and long sideburns, broodingly dark eyes, the line of the cheeks and jaw exquisitely sculptured a cleft in his chin. If anyone could be said to be over-endowed with beauty, it was him. He was so brightly different from any other man in a room that in his company the merely good-looking seemed ordinarily plain.
To survive, football alike every other entertainment industry, requires producing superstar figures – and George Best added football as a key component in the business of entertainment!
He was an excellent combination of pace, toughness, bravery and self-belief. You could chop him down and his balance was so good he could right himself again in full flight. He always played for the fans. With the ball tight to his foot, George Best would take the ball to the defenders; only to swivel and go past them. In his first training session with Manchester United, he humiliated Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg – and from there on, he never felt the pressure to improve and to achieve whatever he has not. It is obvious pressures are greater the higher up the ladder of football fame you go. Winning makes it much harder to keep going. It is how you cope with it that matters. George Best always felt pleased with the fact that his presence in a game can put a few thousand on the gate. He says, “I’m completely immersed in what is happening out on the park; not whether I personally am contributing my full share of entertainment to the man who has forked bob specially to see my play.” So, as George Best, and a part of Manchester United, he always knew about pressures and how to overcome them. The bigger your reputation, the more determined any defender is to make you look stupid, Georgie was always confident that he would make him look a mug. His belief in his own ability to fight back made him a stand-out performer, every time.
It was astonishing, how much money George actually earned, because footballers of the 60s didn’t earn much money and they certainly didn’t in terms of salary. The most George earned as a footballer was £250, and that was in his final year at Manchester United. He was the first brand footballer. Between 1966 and 1970, he put his name to 78 different things – everything from shoes to fashion to breakfast cereal to bedding. Earning about £100,000 a year by 1969, which was a phenomenal amount.
George Best is… well, George Best. Television gave him an international reputation, and when he played abroad thousands of people came to see him confirm the impression they have of him, as a ball-playing genius. There were all types of pressure on which are sometimes harder to live with. In the period of mass-coverage era: television, radio, newspapers – football lived out in the spotlight. The Beautiful Game became a popular sport, because it has so much money involved – adding to the pressure to prove if you are ‘worth’ what you are paid. The seventeen-year-old, George Best thrown in at the deep end in a vital FA Cup-tie – well, he was going to have every available detail about his background and beliefs splashed around all over the place. Trevor Francis was only sixteen when he started banging goals for Birmingham City, became a celebrity to such an extent that even maiden aunts knew all about him! You should posses a strong character to be able to take all that – start believing entirely in your own ability and publicity, and start taking knocks on and off the football field.
In the Northern Ireland side, George Best used to rip though defences, maneuvers his way into positions that caused havoc in any defence – enabling his teammates to capitalize on the spaces he created. The opposition was never sure what he is going to do. Still, loved, admired and idolized in his homeland, George’s finest hour in Northern Ireland colors came against Scotland, where he humiliated the Scotsmen. Earlier in the day, he was regarded as a selfish player, considering he liked holding the ball and play it alone. George was too intelligent a player, who did it “his way”. George’s ability and his team’s capability lied in his own intelligence; how he read a game spontaneously, judging situations from all angles at any given moment. He knew, when to hold the ball and weave his way through or when to make the best use of it with a pass.
George Best worked for his teammates, drawing a defence before putting through a ‘killer’ key-pass or making space for an attack. He utilized his time on the ball to completeness. Superstars or sporting icons is what a sport should timely produce. But, nowadays, there are a lot of emphases on systems and organization, the game is highly mechanized. Players, at times are forced to fit into systems, allowing them no real room for individual prowess. A great team allies structural control with individual flair.
In Blessed, the opening sentence revisits his brush with mortality. ‘I was in such agony that if I someone had offered me a pill to it all, I wouldn’t have hesitated to take it. Death would at least ended the persistent dreadful pain – the worst I’ve ever known…
Hugh McIlvanney describes, ‘with feet as sensitive as pickpocket’s hands, his control of the ball under the most violent reassure was hypnotic. The bewildering repertoire of feints and swerves, sudden stops and demoralizing turns, exploited a freakish elasticity of limb and torso, tremendous physical strength and resilience for slight a figure, and balance that would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple.’
In Northern Ireland, during the early seventies, Best was comparable to a God. He was their only footballing genius, style guru and pop star. But, it was an otherworldly performance on 9th March 1966 in Lisbon, against a S.L. Benfica, which presented George with an opportunity to make a name for himself in Europe. He single-handedly demolished a mighty S.L. Benfica side, who were dominating European football with their presence in four of the last five European Cup finals, winning the competition twice. Regarded as his finest performance in a Manchester United colors, he describes: “Perhaps it was because I was so wrapped up in my performance. I barely remember half-time, except for the fact that we were celebrating and Matt Busby was trying to tell us that we had to be careful, that it wasn’t over. But after Shay Brennan knocked in an own-goal, Pat Crerand and Bobby Charlton both scored in the second half and we had an unbelievable 5-1 win. It was surreal stuff. To be a part of such an experience was unreal.”
George Best was an individual, whose individuality helped to revitalize the game. He was a complete footballer. Around the world, he is regarded as the greatest British footballer. If only he went past night clubs as he went past defenders, George Best would have augmented his brilliance and distinctness. His greatest achievement lied in his talent to envelope and present the devotion and enthusiasm with which he performed into the bodies of those thousands observers, who happened to witness the excellence of an individual destroyer of defence. His finest asset was his wealth encapsulated in his potential to remain calm on the football field, eradicating the rocky environment he lived and dealt with off it.
In the eight days since his death, people he’d never met, names he’d never known, had come like pilgrims on a mission to offer condolences and convey their grief and say thank you for who he had been and what he had done. The clipped square of lawn was smothered in hand-delivered garlands, wreaths and heaped sprays of cellophane-wrapped floral tributes. There were football scarves and shirts, too. The crimson silk of his club, Manchester United, and the emerald of his country, Northern Ireland, stood out amid the shock of colors belonging to other teams, among them Celtic and Glasgow Rangers, Arsenal and Spurs, Everton and Liverpool, Linfield and Glentoran. The shirts intertwined as though a truce had been struck between rivals, suspending long-established territorial feuds and putting aside tribal loyalties solely for his sake. Attached to them were scribbled notes and poems on heart-shaped cards, the messages written in Biro or felt tip, the words smudged and stained during a week of frost and sleet and rain. Those who brought them lingered awhile afterwards and looked around them, as if trying to picture him there long ago.
No footballer imposed himself so completely on to the romantic imagination as he had done. Each and every adjective or superlative to describe the mastery, diversity and intellectuality of George Best declares this genius’ glorified and celebritized existence. “Genius” is a title which accurately, but inadequately describes him.